Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Warming Up With Johnny Olson

Johnny Olson was a daytime host on network radio and early television who saw his career somehow take a turn and ended up as an announcer on a pile of TV game shows. Olson’s voice was well-known to audiences long before he came up with “Come on down!!!” when The Price Is Right was re-worked and returned to the tube in 1972. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best announcer in game-show history.

One of Johnny’s talents the home audience never saw was his warm-up act, where he got everyone in the studio all hyped for the taping of the programme that was to follow (or a live broadcast, in the case of the 1950s Goodson-Todman shows). His abilities as a mood-setter were praised on the air by John Daly, Gene Rayburn and Jackie Gleason, who would have no one else warm-up his audience, and flew Johnny to Miami Beach for tapings of his shows in the ‘60s.

Here’s Johnny in a UPI column I found from August 7, 1966. His last name seems to be have misspelled on far too many occasions. He talks about the dos and don’ts of audience warm-ups.

Warm-Up Man Rates Gleason Job Best
Johnny Olsen, 25-Year Veteran, Does 14 Shows a Week

By United Press International
NEW YORK — I've been an announcer and studio warm-up man for many years now, and one of the most enjoyable assignments I have had is doing Jackie Gleason's "The American Scene Magazine" comedy-variety show.
It was a problem fitting it into my busy schedule — I do 14 shows a week, including "What's My Line?", the daytime and nighttime "To Tell the Truth" programs and "I've Got a Secret."
When I stepped to the microphone onstage in the Miami Beach Auditorium and said these familiar words — "and away we go!" — some 3,000 people in the audience exploded and burst into a solid roar of applause, shouts and cheers.
PRODUCTION - Those words signaled the call to action of more than 100 people involved in the production of the show. As usual, June Taylor's lovely dancers started things off with a fast, lively routine to the rhythm-packed tunes of Sammy Spear's orchestra. And this set the stage for Jackie's first appearance when he walked on, beaming amid the rising roar of approval that came to a climax when he spread his arms and said, "How sweet it is!"
That's when I knew I had done my job well, because for about 15 minutes before that electric moment, I had the studio audience in my charge, making them happy and comfortable, and putting them in a warm, receptive mood.
The art of "conditioning" an audience for Jackie's type of show requires specialization and tact in convincing 3,000 persons how important they are to the show—and they are!
BASIC RULES - I have developed a few basic rules for myself over the years in warming up a studio audience and keeping it warm, and I guess I've been lucky—they've worked well.
First rule is: Don't take the edge off the show itself. In other words, don't try to be too funny; don't overpower the audience; don't sell yourself—sell the star and the show that's to follow.
Second rule: Keep the star out of the warmup. I had to talk Jackie out of wanting to come out before each taping to chat with the studio audience. He gets more reaction, more excitement, when the audience sees him for the first time.
NEXT RULE — Don't have too many things around that clutter the stage and distract an audience from concentrating on the star and his supporting players. Of course, this is not always easy to accomplish because of the great variety of technical gear needed for a television show. But it helps if the producer and director keep things to a minimum. And don't overdo your warmup. Don't exhaust the audience and get them fidgety before the show starts. Say or do what you're going to — concisely, clearly and enthusiastically. And bring them to that magic level, of great expectations. Then, they're ready to give the show a terrific response.
COMMUNICATE — Oh, yes, I have one more rule for myself. I never sit down, from the moment I get on the stage until that very last moment when the show is over I like to stay on my toes and keep in tune with Jackie while he's on. This way, I'm able to sense his every move and the nuances of his laugh-provoking "bits" — and I try to communicate this to the studio audience.
Last year, on one occasion, I was flying back to New York on a Sunday afternoon and had to make the "What's My Line?" show that evening. A storm blew up, and we couldn't land in New York, Philadelphia or Washington. So, we flew back to Florida, then turned around and finally landed in Baltimore.
I raced for a New York train and made it to the studio less than half an hour before air time. I must have flown 4,000 miles that day.
USES SCOOTER — Another time, leaving New York. I had to catch a plane at Kennedy Airport following a taping of "To Tell the Truth." Knowing in advance that I had a touch-and-go time and traffic situation, I had a friend whisk me to the midtown tunnel on his scooter. There, I transferred to a waiting sports car — another good friend helped me on this one — and I made it to the plane just on time.
Oh, yes. It was winter in New York, and I had to carry summer clothes in a bag and over my arm and change into them while en route to Miami Beach.
GREAT NAMES — But it's all part of the business, and I love it. I've worked with many top names in my more than 25 years in the radio and television business — Mayor LaGuardia, the great singer Madame Schumann-Heink, Ameila Earhart, President Herbert Hoover, President Franklin D. Roosevelt —and, yes, Jackie Gleason. He makes you feel great when he says, after a good job, "You're beautiful, pal."
And it certainly beats working in a drug store. I started working in a drug store in my hometown of Windom, Minn. But here I am in show business.
It's just as well—I never could make sandwiches.


  1. One of my cousins, a devout Mormon, attended Price in the 80s. She got a seat on the front row. She told anyone who would listen to her that Johnny's warm up was "just vulgar". In the episode she attended she got a lot of camera time since she was on the front row and there she sat with this angry look on her face. And she wonders why she was not picked!!

    I never had the pleasure of attending any program where Johnny was announcer but he was my favorite. If it was Goodson Todman you could bet that it would be Johnny.

  2. Our school class went to see a taping of IIRC three episodes of To Tell the Truth back in the mid-1960s. The one thing I remember about the warm-up was the joke Johnny did with a older woman (who looking back, obviously was a plant and in on the bit )

    Johnny: Where are you from?
    Woman (in Irish accent): Ireland.
    Johnny: What part of Ireland?
    Woman: Coney Ireland.

    It was a big hit with we 9-and-10-year-olds in the audience.